Friday, July 30, 2010

Niagara Falls road trip! Part 2

After leaving Ithaca (previous post), we headed towards Niagara Falls, travelling through New York's Finger Lakes region.

Before the trip, I hadn't even known why it was called the "Finger Lakes region."  It's because the area has a bunch of narrow oval lakes, shaped kinda like fingers.
The area is now becoming a famous wine growing area, apparently.  It seems like we passed a sign for a different vineyard every 10 minutes.

We drove past the town of Canandaiuga.  If we go past again, I definitely want to stop by the Sonnenberg Gardens.  I have a soft spot for historic homes and botanical gardens.


We reached Niagara Falls, NY, around 3:30 in the afternoon.  We decided our first stop should be the visitor's center.  The thing that surprised us most was that the downtown seemed largely abandoned.  When I think of downtowns, I think of crowded spaces, cars parallel parked along the street, making them narrower, lots of stoplights/signs, lots of one-way streets, lots of pedestrians.  Even in small towns--like here, in University Town, or in Ithaca, or my hometown--and definitely in the downtowns of larger cities, the downtown area followed this general pattern.  Niagara Falls, NY was nothing like that.  It didn't help that the visitor's center was right across the street from a boarded up hotel (click to enlarge):
(courtesy of Wikipedia commons)

We were able to pull up into a space just a block away from the visitor center.  We were one of two cars on the street.  We were wondering if the visitor's center was even open.  It was brand new--the ceiling was unfinished, with missing ceiling tiles, and there was no decor, just plain white floors and walls.  And besides three ladies behind the desk, my husband and I were the only ones there.  There was just one, small, shelf with pamphlets.  Of course, all the maps and such were only for Niagara Falls, NY.  Any area maps for Niagara Falls, ON (Ontario, Canada), were non-existent.

I asked one of the ladies at the desk where the Cave of the Winds (one of the attractions on the NY side) was.   She gave unclear directions and was unable to tell me travel time/distance  (isn't it the point of a visitor information center to know these things?) but did tell me that one of the elevators to the Cave of the Winds was broken, and that the wait in line was about 3 hours.

I was hoping to get across by border by 6 o'clock, so we decided to go first thing in the morning, instead of that evening.  Since we had some time before then, we decided to walk down to the Falls.

It was confusing, since the visitor's center was not shown on the map that I had been given, nor was the map to scale (it was a cartoony park map).  It was also confusing because there was no one around.  No one.  It was alike we were in a ghost town.  Besides the shuttered hotel, we walked past an abandoned shopping center.  We found the intersection where the park should have been, according to the map, but we didn't see an entrance.  We DID see a large 9 story building that had "Gateway to the Falls" in large neon letters--like you would see at a car dealership.  We were skeptical:  it looked like an abandoned office building.  The sides were entirely glass, and did look very nice at first glance.  However, through the glass on the sides, we could see on the upper floors had exposed wiring and parts of the ceiling was falling down.  We didn't know what else to do, so we went in.  It was shelves of cheap souvenirs and a food court.  But at least this was the first place we had been that had a bit of a crowd.

The stairs to the second floor was cordoned off, and there were cardboard cutouts of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe at the top of the steps.  There were signs that said "Observation Tower: Free!", so we got into the elevator for the top floor.  We stepped out onto a bare linoleum space with a few wooden park benches and pay binoculars along the one side.  It was humid and had a strange smell.  My husband said: "It smells like  pee."   We went over to the window to look out, and AH! there was the entrance to the park--it was behind the building!  We quickly went back downstairs and out to the park.

So this was where everyone was!  Surprisingly, there was no admission to the park.  We were able to walk right through the Niagara Falls Park Visitors Center (which was different from the Niagara Falls (city) Visitor's Center, where we were just at) and out the other side to see the water.

Here's a picture of the rapids (for all photos, click to enlarge):

Leading to the American Falls (the skyline in the distance is Niagara Falls, ON):

The drop-off, up close:

It was just awesome.

We were there for a little while.  My husband bought me fruit flavored Dippin' Dots (strange tasting when they were solid, as it melted, the flavors mixed to a nice fruit punch), and we went back to the car, and headed across the border.

It was an easy crossing, fairly quick.  But once we were across the border, it was like night and day.  Niagara Falls, ON was like Disneyland.  The streets were lined with all sorts of shops and restaurants, and there were plenty of people.  As you can see from the skyline in the previous pictures, there was no shortage of hotels and attractions on the ON side.

Our hotel was easy to find.  Check-in was efficient.  Our room was wonderful.  We didn't quite have a "fallsview" room--our room overlooked the rapids and the city, but it was a nice view, nonetheless.  The front desk even called up as we were starting to unpack to make sure we were satisfied with our room.   We stayed at the Doubletree Resort and Spa.  Expedia gave it their "Insider's Select 2010" award.  It definitely lived up to its reputation.

We had reserved a dinner table at a Fallsview restaurant: The Keg at the Embassy Suites.  It was for 8:30pm--they illumiate the Falls starting at 9pm in the summer, and I wanted to catch that moment.  We showered, put on dinner clothes, then walked the few blocks to the Embassy Suites.  I wanted to be extra sure we got a window seat, so we got there early, at 8pm.  To our surprise (it was the week after the 4th of the July--normally one of the busiest weeks of the tourist season), we were seated right away, and at a table next to the window.

This was my view:
That's right...I was seated directly across from the Horseshoe Falls.

There was also the view of the American Falls:

Now see that square glass building with the banners on the side, just left of middle?   Let's zoom in:

And zoom again:

This was the "Gateway to the Falls" that we had gone into earlier--the one with the observation deck that smelled like pee.  Notice the random blackened windows.  Also notice behind it, to the right, the empty parking garage of the shuttered mall.  

But...back to dinner.   Since it was only 8, and we had to have our dinner last to 9, until the lights came on we took our time, ordering everything from appetizer to dessert.

Appetizer: Fried calamari.  (No pic)  It was very lightly breaded (a good thing), and came with two little dishes one of spicy red sauce (Sriracha/Rooster Sauce based?) and one of a ginger sauce.  Yum.

Salad:  Cesar salad, with a fresh lemon wedge!

Entree:  Prime rib, with au jus and horseradish, baked potato, and sautéed mushrooms and broccoli.

It's supposedly Medium Well--they do say that you're supposed to tell by temperature, not by color--but I'm not so sure.  It didn't taste bloody, so I didn't complain.  I quite enjoyed it.  My husband had sirloin steak, which he liked as well.  

Desserts: Brownie sundae (me) and Creme brulee (him)
I had to take half of that brownie home.  

We stayed until after 9:30, I think. I spent most of that entire meal looking out the window.   I don't have pics of the Falls lit up--there was too much glare from the indoor lights on the window.  It was nice, though, watching the colors change. 

There was a lady, going from table to table, carrying a basket of roses.  My husband bought me one.  I thought it was absolutely sweet of him.

We took a short stroll around the hotel area, and saw a raccoon digging around in the grass along the sidewalk.  On the way back, there was a pirate, on stilts, making balloon animals, in front of a seafood restaurant.  We saw a gang of Mennonites.   

It was a fine day.